A literate though gritty thriller by Oxford-based mysterian Giltrow.
Who guards the guards while they’re guarding the rest of us? So asked the Roman poet Juvenal. Giltrow offers a wrinkle: If the guards are criminals to begin with, top dogs in a “self-regulating society made up of other criminals,” then who are the criminals, and why bother guarding them? No matter: She ably imagines a near-future republic of miscreants that exists alongside our own. The Program, as it’s called, is impregnable—supposedly. Populated by the dregs of society—supposedly—it allows no entry or exit. That’s before elegant socialite Charlotte Alton goes all Batman, of course, and in her alter ego as the tough sociopath Karla, helps insinuate the even tougher sniper and spook-on-the-run Simon Johanssen into a place run by an archfiend who’s tougher still, a “professional criminal, gangster, murderer” who wants Simon dead. Now, why would Simon, who certainly takes his lumps in this tale, want to go to such an uninviting place? Apparently, because some sniper justice needs to be visited on a woman who has done Very Bad Things, a sentiment that seems to be widely shared. But hasn’t everyone in The Program done such VBTs? Well, there’s the question. The cat and mouse that ensues is satisfying though not without flaws: Giltrow’s characters can’t stop gabbing, the narrative suffers from occasional patches of overwriting (“But my brain won’t let me sleep: I lie there while the thoughts tick in my head, metronomic, insistent, like the drip of a tap”), and it stretches credulity and patience for everyone in the story to nurse a secret-life back story. Still, Giltrow’s villains are just right (who doesn’t hate medical insurers, for one thing?), and the worldbuilding she does in imagining The Program to begin with is worthy of a well-made sci-fi yarn, pushing genre bounds in interesting ways.
Well done overall. A pleasurable, complex read that runs a touch long—and, as Giltrow reminds us, “It is all about distance.”